I DON’T FEEL ANYTHING: My Problem with Dissociation, And How I’m Trying to Feel Again

Sometimes my body gets numb and I forget that I'm a human being.

Apr 17, 2013 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

I was flipping through my current journal Sunday night. I’ve always kept one, and have a whole box of them at my dad’s house back in Chicago. Some of them are covered in blood and stuff (back from my cutting days). They’re morbid. Disturbing. I don’t like looking at them. 

Last year, the year I hardly wrote anything at all, and felt very much not like myself, and that culminated in me ending up in a psych ward, and then in treatment, I had a journal with precisely three entries.  

Now, I find keeping one -- and going through it often -- vital for my health: I’m able to track my mood swings, target my triggers, and monitor any patterns that might indicate the start of something unmanageable, like an upswing in energy, for example, or having tons of GREAT ideas and staying up until 3 a.m. multiple nights in a row thinking about them. 

It’s also a great place to mind dump. (Obviously.)

So, back to Sunday: I’m flipping through my current journal. I’m at an entry in late January, maybe a week and a half into treatment. I’m in Palm Springs. 

“Just got back from a hike,” I wrote. (We went on SO MANY HIKES.) “I accidentally punched a rock, and I didn’t feel a thing.” 

I shudder, look down at my hand, and see the speckles of discolored flesh on my knuckle. 

I flash back to sitting in my therapist’s office before I left for California. “I saw this girl walking a puppy near my street,” I tell her. I’m sure my eyes are glazed over. My expression’s stone cold. People often tell me I have a bitch face, or that I look aloof. I continue, “And I thought, ‘I could see this puppy get run over by a car right now, and I wouldn’t feel a thing.’” She nods, and her face doesn’t flinch. She and I have talked about my tendency to dissociate before. 

When I say, “I feel nothing,” it’s not merely that socially appropriate emotions refuse to manifest, but that I experience a physical numbness throughout my body. 

It’s why I previously had this obsession with chopping off my arms or hands. And although I certainly think my cutting was an attempt to get attention, or a cry for help, I know what I thought every time I made a slice: Feel something, feel something!

Labeled as both a coping mechanism and a defense mechanism, dissociation is common in people who grew up in violent or tumultuous households, or for those who’ve experienced trauma. It’s a rather boring version of fight-or-flight, where, when encountered with acute stress, our brains learn to shut off (flight) as an attempt to protect ourselves. 

Other than sounding like a cold-hearted bitch who wouldn’t care if a puppy got hit by a car, my personal symptoms related to dissociation include forgetting like, all of my childhood, and being a really shitty driver, ‘cause I usually forget that I’m a human, and that I’m driving. 

The worst parts? I can be a HORRIBLE person to those I love most. After all, when you don’t feel feelings, how can you empathize with others? And, also, I sometimes don’t pay attention to pains in my body until, say, I’m in the ER, everyone’s panicking about me having to get surgery, and I’m sitting there, cracking jokes, and saying, “Right, that’s cool, cut me open.”

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Ugh, so out of it here. And I don't even smoke. 

When I heard about the Sandy Hook shootings in December, I had those feelings many of us had: Shock, horror, disgust. But I didn’t cry. I mainly felt angry about my country’s inaccessibility to mental health services and accessibility to guns. (Of course, I had been going through my own shit, mental-health-wise, and was at the peak of frustration and exhaustion from the whole process.) 

And then: Monday. Post-intensive therapy for 30 days. Having gone through all these weird, experimental treatments (that I totally want to write about later) to help recover -- and get over -- the things that I just couldn’t FEEL in the past. No longer self-medicating, or on an odd dosage of SSRIs that made me be like, “WOW, look at the clouds!” for two hours a day, but on a monitored dose of mood stabilizers that still make me feel like myself -- but a more balanced version of myself. 

I read about Boston. I looked at the pictures. And then I cried. Like a normal fucking person, who was also shocked and disgusted and afraid and felt so horrible for all the people who RAN 26 MILES only to get injured for reasons that are still undetermined, but that we all know are completely nonsensical. For those who lost their lives, or their family members. For the heroism of the people who ran in to help others. 

And then what did I do? I took a Klonopin

This anti-seizure medicine, typically prescribed to people with bipolar to ward off mania (that’s staying up all night with those GREAT thoughts) is also taken as an anti-anxiety medicine. 

But I wasn’t anxious. I was fucking FEELING. And I couldn’t deal with it. I wanted to be numb again. I ended up nodding-off and had to trudge my way heavily home from work. 

When I take Klonopin when I actually NEED it (AKA I'm pacing, calling lots of people, can't sleep, and won't shut up), I feel calm and balanced. This was different.

I’m disappointed in myself. Because although I think my brain was doing what it needed to do at the time to protect itself prior to treatment, I don’t want to dissociate anymore. I don't want to numb myself out with drugs.

I think FEELINGS breed passion -- to be an agent of change, to truly love others, and to make this sometimes extremely scary world a better place. 

So, anyway. If you experience this aforementioned numbness, like me, here are ways you can healthily help yourself feel again: 

YOGA

My therapist tries to push yoga on me, and OK I’ll do it more, I promise. Mindfulness -- a word they used too often in rehab (e.g., “Be MINDFUL of your empty soda cans!”) -- is directly integrated into the practice. It’s a method for you to “scan” yourself for any aches, pains, and tight spots, so you’re forced to FEEL your body.

Of course, there’s also lots of deep breathing involved, which grounds you back to the Earth, as opposed to making you feel like a floating Oz head. 

RIGHT BRAIN, LEFT BRAIN EXERCISE

There’s a popular theory that when you’re dissociating, the right and left sides of your brain aren't “talking.” It’s way new age-y, but lots of therapists use instruments now that help connect your right and left-brain by sending vibrations to your right hand, and then your left hand, for instance, or by having you look at lights that move from left to right. 

I do this exercise that I LOVE without any instruments 'cause, um, I don't have any. And you can try it right now. Seriously. Do it.

Rest your hands on the outside of your thighs, close your eyes, and think of your favorite location. (For me, it’s this dope beach I once went to in New Zealand.) As you breathe in and out, and think about the details of the beach -- or whatever place you choose -- how it smells, how it looks, the sand underneath your body or whatever, you’ll be gently patting your thighs, one at a time, with that hand that’s outside of it. So like, right hand pats right thigh, then left hand pats left thigh. Do it for at least three minutes. 

Every time I do this, I feel completely self-aware afterward. It’s SO good. 

GRAB SOME ICE

I kind of consider this the, “I’m so out of my body right that I feel desperate,” approach. But you know. Whatever.

Grab some ice and hold it in both hands. It may sting a little. It shouldn’t be painful. But it’s like a SHOCK, and it re-centers you, quickly. 

This was a weird one for me to write. I had a post about more pretty beauty products almost ready to go, but it felt so stupid and trivial after Monday. Plus, I guess, I needed to fess up. So: How’s everyone FEELING?

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